What Did You Learn in School Today?

Sweet childhood memories

SEUCK, the Shoot ‘Em Up Construction Kit for the C64, gave me my first real taste of computer game development.

Let’s face it, the original computer game developers didn’t have any specialized education. A lot of the game developers from Sweden that started out in the 80s and 90s didn’t stick around after high school. They got the skills they needed on their own and got cracking. Why should you go to school in order to become a game developer?

My first professional computer game

BF1942 was made using internally developed tools, plus 3DSMax. But to me the principles were the same as SEUCK.

Learning is a life-long challenge. We live in the information age, when information is constantly available and constantly updated. The time between the discovery of a problem solving method and your being able to share it is reduced to seconds, hours, or days. However, Information is only useful to a person who has the framework of reference, the discipline and the skills to translate the information into fruitful action.

Hours of fun

I actually used a lot of the skills I had picked up making tabletop terrain and running miniature wargame tournaments as inspiration for BF1942

Some people learn best alone, studying books. Others want to pick things apart and figure out how they work. Most people learn well in groups and from people with previous experience.

Book learning. It works.

Historical examples help us think. I find non-fiction fascinating.

We humans are leaning machines. If you haven’t already, go read Raph Koster’s excellent book “A Theory of Fun for Game Design”. Just look at society and the development curve of the human race. Learning is fun. It rewards us with dopamine and also with new skills. Learning is necessary. If we don’t learn, we quickly become unable to function within the game industry.

Learn your chosen craft on all levels

I didn’t start reading books on game design until after I had left DICE. But now that I do, I often find them very useful.

I myself am fairly well educated, but I have no formal training in game development. I have 3 years of art school and 4 1/2 years at university level for at total of 7 1/2 years of post high school training. I’ve also helped organize and manage game development educations at the University of Skövde and at The Game Assembly, which is a vocational training program.

Play, play, play

Some of these games had larger teams than others. But Wasteland still has the coolest picture of a dev team yet, on the inside sleeve.

The games industry of the 70s, 80s or 90s is no more. Teams today are larger and many more people work in the industry. The individuals who can and will acquire tier one skills on their own are usually entrepreneurs or savants, and/or come from very strong backgrounds with easy access to equipment, money and knowledge outside of formal education. The game industry of today relies heavily on schools to train the majority of new talent.

When I went to university in pursuit of my master’s degree in sociology, I was told that a wide knowledge base is helpful to research work. The actual skill set for collecting and arranging data is not huge. It can be taught in a couple of months. It’s analysis, as well as the formulation of a hypothesis, that is the real challenge. Data in itself is neutral information. In order to make good use of it we have to put it into the correct context, conduct correct analysis and draw well-founded and fruitful conclusions. To do that we need knowledge of different theories and methodologies.  That’s why scientists tend to be well-read, often in and outside of their narrow specialty. Information is power, but only if it can be put to good use.

Inspiration for the masses

Film and TV serve as huge inspirations for modern game making. The reverse is also increasingly true.

Creativity is sometimes defined as taking something from one context and putting it in a different context. Say, applying musical theory to painting, asking a car designer to draw a house or wearing a top hat with a t-shirt. Creativity is not always successful, or even inspired, but sometimes it strikes gold. Trying to piece things that don’t normally go together into a new whole is easier and more fun the more pieces you have to chose from.

Yay! Hot tub fun times.

Some people are always switched on.

Look at some iconic moments of discovery. Archimedes in his bath tub (Eureka!), or Newton under the apple tree. (Well, arguably he watched apples fall. He didn’t get bopped on the head by one.) They were doing unrelated things, but they had the knowledge and the focus to relate their experiences to their primary work.

Hey, some of these haven't even been made into major motion pictures yet

Did you know there’s a Watchmen comic, now? Seriously though… books and comics (single/small team creator) continue to be the most important source of new ideas for entertainment media in general.

The context of discovery reflects a creative process. It is close to what psychology calls “hunching”; the process of discovering or inventing a possible solution. The context of justification describes what comes after, when you prove how and why something works. Justification cannot help you to invent anything, only to understand it after the fact. Justification allows greater confidence in a new solution and makes it easier to iterate and troubleshoot around it. If you want to be creative, learn many different things. If you want to justify and be an expert, learn a few disciplines well. If you can, try to do both, i.e. learn a few things well and keep a wide range of interests on the side.

Old or new, it's all good

You probably already know that ‘atari’ is a term from the ‘Go’ board game.

Nolan Bushnell, the founder of Atari, worked in an amusement park after gambling away his college tuition money. Day in and day out, while working a stand, he saw people willing to pay good money for quick entertainment experiences. He was already in engineering college, where he had come across a copy of Space War by Steve Russell on the campus PDP-1 computer. The idea struck him: a computer game could be an attraction people would pay for, like pinball machines or raffles. That’s why computer games were first commercialized as arcade machines. This is a good example of context of discovery.

I'm invincible!

Calle Lundgren and I go way back. That’s him in red. I’m in the white helmet. Trying out new things, like re-enactment fighting, gives me tons of ideas.

Calle Lundgren, my co-founder at Junebud, lives by a “rule of new”. It’s a simple sorting device he applies to all things in life. If there’s a choice situation he always picks an alternative he hasn’t tried before. That means new food, new equipment, new people. A simple everyday rule like this can keep you supplied with new stimuli and keep your life from getting boring.

French mathematician Jean-Marie Constant Duhamel once put it this way, “The definition of a thing is the expression of its relations to other known things”. Having a wealth of experience will allow you to contrast and compare. That’s how we understand most things: by comparing them to something we’re already familiar with. Then we decide what’s different and what’s similar.

The University of Skövde

Going to university is also a nice opportunity to engage with people who are studying for careers different than yours. Huge learning opportunity there. Image from: mastersportal.eu

In Sweden, every bachelor or master level program has to have a plan for imparting not only the specific skills and theory associated with, for instance, game development, but it also has to teach general skills like report writing, presentation skills, scientific method, et cetera. This serves two purposes: 1) It promotes communication skills by ensuring every student can explain their work to layman and specialist alike 2) it teaches abstract skills, such as documentation, analysis and research, that can be of use in many different situations throughout a lifetime.

Abstract theory is food for your brain.

There’s a reason Plato, Sun Tzu and many others are still of interest today: they deal in the abstract.

Abstract thinking skills improve our ability to improvise. Abstract means non-specific and is the opposite of concrete. Abstract thinking allows us, for instance, to recognize all the different types of chair as ‘chairs’. It allows us to understand how non-chair objects can be used to fill the same function as a chair, because we’ve determined the abstract qualities of a chair; you can sit on it and get up off the ground: it offers some back support. Abstract thinking skills are what allow us think of things that don’t exist yet. All higher education is designed to train your skills in abstraction and abstract reasoning.

The age of mythology is now

Mythology is an important source of information and inspiration. You’ve probably heard of Joseph Campbells “The Hero With a Thousand Faces” – but why not check some of the source material out yourself?

Theory is a tool in your tool box. Most of the time when we work, creatively or in production tasks, theory is not needed. We need practical skill, energy and motivation. Theory comes into its own when we come across a problem we can’t just work through.

Expand your visual library whenever you can

Visual art is a primarily a concrete craft, but it’s expression is often abstract. Sometimes it’s aesthetic is realistic, sometimes less so. Expose yourself to as many different schools as you can to develop your own taste.

For example: I often think of art theory in particular as a de-bugging tool. Perhaps that drawing seems off, and nothing you do will get it to work. It’s time to go over basic theoretical considerations: color temperature, complimentary colors, composition, direction, perspective, et cetera. More often than not that will produce a good clue as to what’s wrong, so you can resolve the issue and get back to your production task.

Vocational training programs like The Game Assembly focus on concrete skills: writing code, painting textures, building 3D models, and so on. Abstract skills, such a math, are taught only when necessary to allow for use of the concrete skills. This means students from a vocational program will typically have stronger concrete skills, but weaker abstract skills. Some people, such as myself, invest the time and money to attend both kinds of education. What will work out for you is an open question. The important thing is that you’re able to make informed decisions on what types of skills you want and where to get them.

Game development education at TGA

Learning how to make games should be a hands-on experience, like at The Game Assembly (pictured). Image from: creativenodes.wordpress.com

Importantly, all good game development educations feature game projects as part of the curriculum. If a school is any good, these student game projects will include working together with team members from both your own discipline as well as other disciplines.

Game projects represent the concrete application of the skills necessary to develop games. They’re the only way to get familiar with the practicalities of game development. Familiarity and experience reduces stress and allows for iteration and personal taste. If you’re looking into a game development education and it has no real game project courses, be wary.

For example: at the University of Skövde, all students participate in at least two mandatory game development projects over three years. One five week project, and later on one ten week project. There are optional, additional projects available depending individual choice. At The Game Assembly, all students participate in no less than six game development projects over two years. At any school, most of the ambitious students will have additional projects of their own, on the side.

Pen and Paper RPGs rock

I was and am a huge pen & paper RPG fan. It was interesting to see how many of the game design applications for Skövde University had traditional RPG material in them.

If you go to school, you will probably learn the most from your classmates. They will be of your general age and experience level, and they will be solving the same problems as you. The teachers and the courses will merely be the framework around which you learn.

Here’s a summary of my current, abstract understanding of how skill acquisition works.

Acquiring demonstrable skills requires

  • Information
  • Focus
  • Time
  • A framework of reference
  • Feedback
  • Experimentation (including failure)

Acquiring demonstrable skills benefits from

  • Complimentary existing skills
  • Other people to work as sounding boards
  • Mentoring

Because these are abstract specifications, we can use them for all skill acquisition. This includes professional training later in life, but the really important part is the learning that’s going on every day. The things you learn at the office or when you spend time with your hobbies. Ideas you discuss with a casual acquaintance on a train. Things you see on YouTube or practice at webinars.

Hobbies are fantastic learning opportunities

Don’t be afraid to entertain hobbies far outside of your typical interests. Personally I’m collecting folding knives. It’s a great way to learn about tool design.

Let me close this post with two anecdotes.

When I was a university teacher, a 2nd year student came up to me with a pressing concern. Though he had completed one whole year’s worth of education, he did not feel that he was 33 % complete as a game designer. I could almost see the progress bar he was imagining.

I tried my best to explain to him that learning takes time and does not happen in a linear fashion. Some skills need to “take root”, and many skills are not useful until they are complemented with other skills. Beyond that, some skills are complex. That means they only manifest once a person has mastered several other skills – some of which may themselves be complex. This is why a correctly designed educational program tends to “come together” toward the end.

My second anecdote is also from my university teacher days. I would often receive complaints when students encountered courses that weren’t clearly applicable to game development, like cognitive psychology, or human-computer interaction. These courses were abstract, designed to be of use to students from different disciplines such as industrial engineering, health care or game development.

I used to answer such questions by offering the simile of a boxer trying to stay competitive. A boxer does not just spar and compete. A boxer skips rope, runs, does push-ups, sand bag training, as well as agility, speed and endurance training of many descriptions. A top tier boxer adheres to a mental training regimen. A game developer, too, needs a diverse skill set in order to attain peak efficiency. We cannot simply make games to get better at making games. The people with the talent, discipline, structure and organization to put together a synergetic skill set similar to the boxer above are most likely to rise to the top.

Troll smash!

And for giggles, here’s a pic of me from my LARP days. I was pretty into it. Image by: My Gustafsson

The ‘I’ in Team

Introverts, who live in a world of ideas and images, rather than a world of people and things.

“There are two kinds of people.” When we’re told this, it is usually followed by a joke-like simplification along the lines of, “the quick and the dead”, or, “the rich and the rest”, et cetera. Such dichotomies are crude tools. They tell us more about the world view of the person expressing them than about personality types.

There are actually sixteen kinds of people. That’s according to the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), a fairly common psychological methodology for classifying people. Admittedly, sixteen types over a current world population of something like 7 billion people will result in a lot of repetition. But so would 100 types, or 10 million types. The analytical challenge is to find a taxonomy with an index concise enough to be useful, yet able to span a domain of 7 billion individuals or more. Though it’s only one method out of many, I feel the MBTI is a useful tool for discussing individual behavior and, to some extent, small group behavior.

Myers-Briggs types are based on four clear categories with two possible outcomes each, totaling sixteen types. Here are the four outcome couples:

  1. Extravert – Introvert: What’s your favorite world: the outside world or the world inside your head?
  2. Sensing – iNtuitive: How do you take in new information?
  3. Feeling – Thinking: What does your decision making progress look like?
  4. Perceiving – Judging: What’s your orientation to the outer world: how do you organize yourself?

Homer Simpson (ESFP) is often used as a poster boy for extroversion, Hank Hill (ISTJ) for introversion. Who would you rather have on your team at a game company facing a deadline?

Each of these eight traits deserve attention on their own. They interact in exciting and different ways within each of the sixteen possible types. To delve into them at any depth would require a dedicated blog of its own, but I recommend doing some reading on your own if you’re interested. I will only bring up a few considerations pertinent to today’s discussion.

The four categories and their eight outcomes result in sixteen possible types. Here are the types:

The red ones are extraverts, the blue ones are introverts. Extraverts are more common.

These four letter combinations, or types, come with different pet names depending on what source you look at. The ENTJ  can be called the “chief” or “field marshal”, for instance. The ENFP can be the “advocate” or the “journalist”. It’s just a name, dreamed up to to convey the gist of the typical characteristics of a MBTI type. It doesn’t change the underlying science.

Vanishingly few people have 100% tendencies in any of the categories and more advanced tests will track your tendency quite closely. I myself test as introvert, but only at something like 11%. I don’t mind other people all that much. But I test about 95% thinker. I very rarely use feelings to interpret a situation, and if I do, it’s because i think it’s the best way of doing it. For those interested I am a pretty clear-cut INTJ.

  • Any of the types can be shy, outgoing, organized or messy and such traits are not covered by MBTI classification (though it may suggest tendencies).
  • A great part of the enjoyment anyone gets out of work is not covered by MBTI: growth opportunities, degree of personal freedom, etc.
  • Any individual is bound to have different levels of maturity, self-control, experience, etc. that will be important in determining how they interact with others. This is not covered by MBTI.

Another common categorization of MBTI types is into four temperaments.

These temperaments are arranged in order of primary modes of taking in and processing information. It’s interesting to note that none of these temperaments deals with the introvert-extrovert dichotomy. That is to say, each temperament encompasses four types: two introverts and two extraverts. As an INTJ, I belong to the Intellectuals (NT), along with ENTJ, INTP and ENTP.

On a side note: I think computer game development has been most attractive to the MBTI temperaments of Intellectuals (NT) and Visionaries (NF). But the majority of people are Protectors (SJ) and Creators (SP). No wonder Minecraft and Angry Birds are big.

On another side note: INTJ:s are overrepresented in academia. INTP and ISTP personalities are also common. That means a lot of people who head off to university are likely to have introverts as mentors. The academical, theoretical way of approaching challenges is not for everyone. Yet it is clear, if we look at the history of computer games, that the medium originated in the realm of research and academia.

I think society caters primarily to the majority in most of its institutions. School, workplace, churches, et cetera.

In the population at large, extraverts are much more common than introverts. The ratio is roughly 2:1. All the most rare types are found among the introverts (INFJ for males at 0.5%, INTJ for females at 0.5%). This makes sense if you consider humans as inherently social animals. People who like people and who recharge by being around others are the glue of society. Due to size and complexity, our society needs communication and people who seek stability, take well to instruction, and are resistant to change, i.e. team players. The inquisitive movers and shakers are in the minority.

Though they are less common in society overall, I encounter many introverts in the game industry. Introverts, who draw energy from solitude and who think better away from the group, tend to test better for IQ, have stronger skills in science and math, and generally like to “lock themselves in the basement to focus on their projects”. Many introverts are drawn to brainy, technical stuff and like to interact with technology. I find introverts are particularly common among engineers. Introversion is also a common trait among game writers and certain types of game artists.

So introversion can be great: it promotes the types of skills used in game making. Yet in real life we do projects with other people (sometimes hundreds!) from many diverse disciplines. That requires a lot of face time with all kinds of people and it places high demands on your communication skills.

What causes a person to be an introvert as opposed to an extravert? I discussed this recently with a friend. It started as a chicken-or-egg argument: are people born as introverts, leading in turn to social exclusion – or is introversion caused by social exclusion? The short answer is, I don’t know. If I did I, would probably win some sort of award.

In game development, there’s a line of thought that goes roughly likes this: “a production team should be representative of the target audience”. That is, you should have hardcore gamers on your team if you make games for hardcore gamers, females if you make games for females, europeans if you make games for europeans, (and hardcore female europeans if that’s your compound target audience,) et cetera. The development team should, to the highest possible extent, mirror the end users.

Game development is often very technical. Historically it was the realm exclusively of computer programmers and engineers, meaning lots of INTP, INTJ, ISTP types. This changed somewhat when production teams grew in the 80′s and 90′s, giving rise to specialized artists, designers, project managers, and so on. During the 00′s and 10′s production teams grew to hundreds of individuals for major titles. Computer games become mass market entertainment, including the rise to prominence of “casual” platforms such as the Wii, DS, Facebook, smart phones and tablets. Even the hardcore titles on Xbox, PS and PC were adjusted to cater to a larger, less patient audience. Game commodification evolved to where they could successfully compete with movies, clubbing, and sports as favorite pastimes for the general audience. That meant less complexity, greater usability and a lower threshold of entry.

PS3 vs. Wii. To me, these two commercials are great illustrations of introvert and extravert desires. I guess those ad agencies know their stuff.

This could have something to do with society in general consisting mainly of extraverts. Introverts tend to prefer ideas and images over people and things, like extraverts do. I think computer games are primarily ideas and images. The successful commodification of games in the past decades has brought them closer to people (social) and things (touch interface, Kinect, wiimote) in the eye of the world. While this leads to an increase in audience size and in profit it also means game development teams need to be good workplaces for the kinds of extraverted people who would previously not had dreamt of going into “the industry”.

When we founded Junebud I was determined to put together the best team I could imagine. This included a specification not only for skill level and attitude, but also for a diverse team in terms of age, experience, ethnicity, gender and personality. After all, this was a company meant to make excellent games for an international mass market.

Introverts can both survive and prosper in an open environment if they are allowed to seclude themselves mentally when they need to. Just make sure they’re not forcing extraverts into isolation by doing so.

An unexpected challenge I ran into was creating a good environment for introverts and extraverts. For instance: I once put a pronounced extravert in a room with an extreme introvert. This made sense relative to their relative skill sets and roles within the project. The introvert was annoyed with the “frequent disturbances” of questions, small talk and discussion. The extravert eventually felt bad to be in a room with a person who “wouldn’t acknowledge there were other people in the room”. I was eventually informed that this person seriously considered quitting over the insufferable workplace situation.

I asked the extravert for patience, and then promptly made the mistake of putting another introvert in the room, to fill it to capacity. It did not help the extraverted person. So I swapped in a new hire who seemed sociable for the second introvert, which created a poor environment for the original introvert. The two extraverts “were talking incessantly, joking, playing video clips and discussing problems large and small”. Throughout this whole episode, productivity was good. But I still had to worry about staff feeling so bad at work that they seriously considered looking for another place to work.

Of course, this was back when the company was located at an incubator and we were stuck with a multiple small room type solution. The current ideal is rather an open office environment. Yes, some people (we know who they are) want a single person office with a door and a lock. Most people tend to intuitively want this, in fact. But research shows that communication is a workplace like that is severely hampered. This means it takes longer to identify problems, find solutions, and execute plans. And very few people want to work at an inefficient company.

At Junebud, an open office environment with noise absorbent dividers proved successful. In spite of initial concern, the sound level was subdued and people respected each other’s need for focus or information exchange.

Junebud ended up going with an open office space, but with sound dampening dividers. We put a lot of time and thought into placement of each individual, to try and create an office where the information a person would be likely to need was at hand, but where you would sit close to people who fed you energy and provided the sort of environment you need. This is one out of many instances where it pays off to have spent enough face time with your co-workers to know them reasonably well. The Junebud office ended up a resounding success in terms of reported enjoyment as well as measured productivity.

In this picture from the Junebud offices there are four nationalities. Having neutral meeting places like a pentry or cafeteria works pretty well. Also, note the cake. Cake helps.

I am a firm believer in the group as the smallest meaningful unit of analysis when it comes to professional situations. That means that I am aware that each individual will feel, act and think differently depending on what other individuals he or she has for co-workers. To really make people feel comfortable and energized, to make them take responsibility, they need a context that challenges and supports them. Head-strong technical experts need to be able to work with quick-witted creative staff. Fifty year olds must be able to co-operate with twenty five year olds. The introvert/extravert dichotomy, and the entire MBTI system, is as good a place as any to start understanding how people interact and what sort of input is best for any given person – and who is most likely to be able to provide it.

I’ve noticed how most serious manager development programs include personality tests, as well as sometimes therapy. Results and different interpretations are discussed intelligently, usually in a group. The goal is to make managers aware of their motivations, as well as their strengths and weaknesses. I think anyone striving for excellence in the workplace should have access to these resources. In the age of Internet it’s possible to at least read up on the basics and consider how you fit into the most common classification systems.

The Ocean

The Götheborg East Indiaman, a tall ship reconstructed from an actual ship type from the 18th century. She is the world's largest operational sailing vessel.

A game development company is like a ship. One of those great ships from the age of sail.

The bigger the ship, the more crew you need. The longer the journey, the more supplies and knowledge you need. It takes huge effort to build and crew a ship. A good ship with a bad crew is likely to fail. A good crew can do okay with a bad ship, but will be exposed to unnecessary risk.

A ship launch back in the day. Imagine being there, knowing you'll be sailing on that ship soon.

Back in day, the launching of a new vessel was a major event. The financial backers who paid for the ship would be there. Crowds would gather. People were interested in who had been chosen to captain the ship. A name for the ship had to be chosen with great care, to inspire those who knew of the ship. Each new ship to go down the slip and into the water would be a little better than previous generations as it incorporated the knowledge of how its predecessors had performed.

Oh captain, my captain.

A captain was chosen based on competence, ability to inspire, for track record and based on reputation. This corresponds closely to how I see the manager of a game development company. Yes, you need to be good at the skills required to administrate, develop and grow a company: legal knowledge, ability to organize and structure, business acumen and a good, general knowledge of game development. But you also have to have people skills. To be able to inspire, coach and motivate. Reward or reprimand. Hire or fire. Above all, you need to be someone everyone in the company can respect and feel confident about having as their boss.

Game development can be complicated and very demanding. Image from sailing.about.com

The rest of the crew was equally important: able seamen who knew how to work the rigging, weigh the anchor, work, repair and maintain the many tools and features of a great ship. You’d need several people who knew how to navigate using sun, stars and more technical tools like sextant or compass. You needed people with sharp eyes to be lookouts, keeping an eye out for other ships, reefs, weather fronts, land and such. Most everyday tasks might not be critical, but many had the potential to be very dangerous for everyone aboard if botched.

When a ship set out, there were several carpenters onboard. Salt water is a harsh environment and things break or deteriorate. Ship’s worm would eat the hull, masts would break in foul weather. By having woodworkers on the ship it became possible to conduct field repairs. I sometimes try to imagine it. You’re the ship’s carpenter and something important just broke. They put you in the longboat with a couple of guys, and you head over to a nearby coast to try and find some kind of tree that is made from wood that will do the job. It could be you’ve never seen any of the trees that grow there. You probably have to use what experience you have regarding wood hardness, grain structure, pliability. Yeah, sure, this’ll make a great new plank for the hull. Trust me, I’m a pro.

Me, hiking on Söderåsen in the south of Sweden. I love finding new vistas like this. Photo by Karin Rindevall.

I am overcome with a feeling of adventure when I think about game development companies. Whether you join an existing one or design and launch a brand new one, it’s going to go places and face challenges no-one can predict. You have to trust the “crew” and the “ship builders” and be ready to roll up your sleeves and do what it takes to get wherever you’re going and back again. Maybe you end up on a “lucky ship” or an “unlucky ship” – sailors are a superstitious bunch. One thing is certain. If you join an existing company, it will have its own, proud history, a causal chain of adventures and challenges stretching back in time.

The DKM Scharnhorst was famously considered a "Lucky Ship" by her crew. Her luck eventually ran out, but she had a very good run.

As someone who has operated a medium sized game development company I feel there is plenty of correlation with being the captain of a ship. Unless you have a whole lot of money you will need investors and partners. Most of these will not, and cannot, be involved in the day-to-day activities of the company. They sit back and wait for press releases, board meetings, quarterly economic reports. To my mind that’s like sponsors of old, eager for news of how “their” ship is doing. Was there a mutiny? Storms? Is she still afloat? What about the precious cargo? While the ships is at sea, you have to trust the captain with resolving the myriad of challenges. Not all ships returned home, and fewer still did so filled with precious cargo, but the ones that did more than compensated for the risk and the danger.

Some companies, I feel, are like small coastal freighters. They have a good thing going and the risk is small. They’re always within sighting distance of land and their routes are thoroughly charted. These are the smallish work-for-hire companies. Some companies are like giant trade or war galleys: huge, massive constructs with an enormous capacity, built to ferry the most precious substances across the high seas. I guess these would be the AAA companies. If one had an accident – or went down! – it made international headlines. Other game companies still are like the expeditions of the age of discovery. These are always willing to go further and take greater risks than others and many fail to return. These high-risk-unknown-yield companies could be the indie game companies, or independent studios driven by charismatic visionaries. This simile goes on and on in my head. I like my intellectual toys.

Pong was not Atari founder Nolan Bushnell's maiden voyage (that was a Space War clone). But it was Atari's first valuable discovery.

Back when the computer game industry was young, every company was a daring expedition into the unknown. Through the 70′s and 80′s more actors entered the fray. Best practices were established and pragmatic business sense became more common. As the unknown X factors are charted and turned into known fact, risk can be reduced and profits increased. And yet new markets must be opened and technology keeps changing, which means there will always be a need for explorers. When new territories are discovered – or mature – it sparks the imagination of all explorers out there. Remember the Nokia Ngage? Did you know that Microsoft had touch interface “tablet” designs in the early 2000′s? Remember the Palm Pilots? It took improved technology, widespread 3G and WiFi services, and a new approach to GUI to create the smash hits of the iPhone and iPad. We do well to remember the brave expeditions that failed, yet left behind notes for future sailors.

Seriously, who names their ship "Terror" and expects good things? To be fair, HMS Terror started her life as warship. Still... Terror Games Inc., anyone?

I would like to close this post with a case study of sorts. Consider the elusive Northwest Passage, north of Canada. It was a holy grail for centuries, as it was assumed that if a safe route could be found a lucrative trade route could be opened. For hundreds of years all the major sea-faring nations sent expeditions led by their best and brightest, gave it their best shot. All knowledge from previous attempts was studied carefully. The latest technology in ship building, food storage and navigation was used. Despite all preparations, attempt after attempt met with failure and often death. One of the most famous attempt was made by the British in 1845. It is known as the Franklin Expedition. Equipped with two ships, fitted with iron-reinforced hulls and modern steam engines, it entered the passage carrying cutting edge supplies of tinned food. To make a long story short, the ships ended up stuck in the ice. The new food tins contained lead seals which caused wide-spread lead poisoning among the crew, who in some cases ended up as insane cannibals. It would take many years before remains were found. The Northwest Passage was eventually conquered by a Norwegian explorer named Roald Amundsen. He invested his inheritance and bought a small, tough fishing ship, which could survive the ice by resting on top of it. By using survival techniques gleaned by observing by the Inuits, Amundsen and his small crew were able to succeed where all others had failed. Of course the Northwest Passage turned out to be too unpredictable and dangerous for commercial shipping anyway, until recently (2009) when climate change led to a climate with far less ice.

The Gjøa, the ship that finally conquered the Northwest Passage. Small, agile and crewed with seasoned hard-weather sailors.

Junebud, the company I co-founded and led for 4 years, recently went under. The awesome team, our own Junebud Crew, has made it to shore and I am proud to see them already looking for new adventures on the high seas of game development. A few are tired and have decided to spend time ashore with friends and family, plying a less risky trade for a while. Yet the sea is a demanding mistress and I think I will see them all out there again, sooner or later.

Hello World

Me. Photo by Miri Höglund.

Welcome to the blog of Ola Holmdahl. I am a game developer with a penchant for abstract thinking. I was born in the 70′s, so pretty much to the last generation that wasn’t digital native. In the 90′s I began making games professionally. It started out with miniature wargaming and that led to making computer games. There are many people out there who have longer and more impressive careers than I do, and if you’re passionate about the media you should probably follow them online. This blog is meant to be a sandbox for my ideas on game development and hopefully we can learn a thing or two as it progresses.

I’ve been wrestling with the idea of a personal blog for years. At first, when blogging was new, I just didn’t get it. To write on a blog seemed, to me, analogous to putting a message in a bottle. You write to your heart’s desire, plug it up, chuck it into the ocean and whoever happens to find it may or may not enjoy it.

Later, I began to follow some blogs and found that I liked having somebody else’s thoughts available to me in a more direct, somewhat interactive format. I didn’t start my own blog at that point because I told myself there was no time. Later still, as I co-founded Junebud, we decided to set up at developer blog for our game MilMo. For the first time I had both a channel, the will to use it and time to invest, and I liked it. When Junebud became defunct that outlet went away and needed replacing.

How it was done back in the day. Yes, these are some of my actual diares.

I did keep a journal for a while back in the 90′s. That went on for about a year. Then I realized how depressing it was to read and I stopped. Seriously, the whole thing was mostly long lists of what I had accomplished on any given day. Workout routines, movies I’d watched, books I’d read, paintings I had completed, meetings I had attended, trips I had gone on. I was about 21 years old at the time and I wanted very badly to become a great artist.

What my journal taught me was that I had a huge Hemingway syndrome. Like Ernest Hemingway I had to go places, experience things, consume life in order to sustain my self esteem and convince myself that I was this great, talented guy. The creepy and depressing part was that even though I could clearly see that I got more and more things done, I felt ever more useless and lazy with every passing day. As I think back, there was a point where I said to myself, “I have contracted a kind of anorexia of the soul”. My self-image and reality were growing more disparate every day.

Thus burned I was reluctant to write anything resembling a journal. My life since has been dedicated to the process of finding out what matters to my happiness and how to live a life I can be proud of. It’s an ongoing process, so don’t expect answers. I’m more interested in finding the right questions.

Modern blogging tools. I also went from tea to coffee.

At the time of writing this blog is meant to build on a couple of concepts:

Sharing. The best part of the Internet is how billions of experiences become available to anyone who cares to look for them. There’s no way to count the things I have learned or people who have reached out and inspired me through the web. I want to contribute to the body of knowledge that is the Internet.

Honesty. When people sit down and write, honesty is typically the most exciting component. I don’t think I’m any different here. Sure, facts are nice, but connecting with other people is food for the soul.

Useful tips. Useful information often takes the form of hands-on advice. Proven knowledge or sturdy arguments that we can fall back on when we solve new problems. I think a lot of my tips will take the form of pragmatic conclusions from my experiences as a game developer, a game design teacher and as a manager.

Philosophy. The love of knowledge. Truth for the sake of truth, free of demands for productivity or application. I see philosophy as intellectual honesty married to burning curiosity. It can take you anywhere and the only no-no is to close our eyes when we find something we didn’t expect.

Focus. A blog is an Internet destination and the Internet is very big. This blog is meant to focus on the context in which games are made. Though there will no doubt be tangential posts, the goal is to keep a majority of the information within a stone’s throw of game development.

I’ll do what I can to throw in pictures and links to make the content more palatable. Sound good?